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Why Your Negative Thoughts Can Outweigh the Positive

Man with head in hands stressed

By Stefanie Guillard

Do you ever think about thinking?

It’s an odd question. Most of us don’t think of the many thoughts we have every day until we face a bombardment of these thoughts during a stressful time. When we catch ourselves thinking, we are often embarrassed of our thoughts. When our thoughts cause us distress, we tend to self-stigmatize and think that it’s our fault that we can’t stop being anxious or depressed; it’s not.

Cognitive Negativity Bias

Here’s why: our thoughts are programmed not only by ourselves but also by environmental factors like the world around us, the media, and our families.

They are also influenced by something called a cognitive negativity bias. This means that we weigh things that are negative as more important than things that are positive. This comes from an old programming of the days we were cavemen and had to run away from bears or other threats.

We see this when we do a good job on an assignment or a presentation, but we diminish the positive feedback and hone in on the negative feedback. When our bodies are under stress, our brains naturally do this more.

Mental health therapists can help us understand that our negativity is a bias. Positive thinking isn’t cheating or looking at the world with rose coloured glasses: it actually helps you become more productive because it decreases your stress response and reminds your body that you are safe.

When something negative happens, it’s important to feel your feelings first and foremost. They are there for a reason and they tell you important information. The problem with platitudes like “just think positive” discounts reasons for feeling fear or sadness and that’s not helpful.

Being stuck in a negative rut isn’t helpful either because it inhibits your body’s ability to manage stress.

What can we do?

1. Identify your feelings.

Saying the words, “this sucks” isn’t the same as homing in and identifying a feeling, “I feel embarrassed.” There is power in words!
At NAIT, we are fortunate to have trained Peer Supporters who listen non-judgmentally to feelings and thoughts which help get them out of your body so that you can move on with your life. Check them out at naitsa.ca/peer-support

2. Train your brain.

Seek out positivity on a 3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity. At first this might seem over the top but remember that you are working in an environment that is not balanced. At home and with intimate partners, the ratio moves up to 5:1 because there is more of an impact on us from our family.

3. Speak with a trained mental health counsellor.

Yes, we can work to control our minds ourselves and many of us are very good at staying on the positive side of mental health. We can help to mitigate these strong influences with different strategies and tools and support like talking to a counsellor. They are on your side and will not judge your thinking.

Typical wait times at Student Counselling at NAIT are three weeks or less. This is well under the wait times of other post-secondaries (most who have a 6 week wait list). There is also space for urgent consults if needed during walk-in times. Email counselling@nait.ca for more information. Www.mywellnessplan.ca is a video counselling service available for appointments in the evening, on weekends, and in many languages.

Hey!

I’m Stef G., the customer service specialist in the counselling centre. I’m trained in many mental health areas including responding to disclosures, mental health first aid, and conflict resolution.

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